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Web Design for Real People

Catalina Butnaru - Thursday, September 08, 2011 |

Web design used to be a developer's playground before UX designers came and added more levels to the process. As the center of gravity shifted from designing systems to creating experiences, it became more clear that everything we designed needed to add value to our life and choices. As we move to an experience economy, allot of designers spend time looking for inspiration in online resources, only to discover that the best solutions come from offline sources and everyday life. UX designers will become more skilled at identifying real world resources that can be applied in web design, because they are increasingly relevant to their job.

Semantic Web Rubik's Cube
Photo by: Dull Hunk on Flickr

Design thinking needs to go outside aesthetic or functional challenges and bring in solutions inspired by people. This article talks about being "people aware" and using human factors to improve user experience.


Communicating with Systems

One thing we know from Marc Rettig is — if you want to be a good interaction designer, go watch how people interact with objects. People appreciate things about web interfaces that can be surprisingly different from what an entire team of enginners would expect. One of these things is the way systems are designed to provide feedback, start and sustain an imaginary conversation with people. Interaction is partially communication.

People have dialogs with and about the things they use every day... If you pay attention to how people interact with interfaces, what you will notice is — people talk with the apps they use, they comment about the form they're filling, express frustration or relief when performing certain tasks, and add human attributes and descriptors to things they're been using for a while.

Systems can be designed to provide feedback in a way that encourages dialog. Why not design web interfaces that "behave" like someone you could actually get along with? The more communication opportunities you create, the more memorable and likable the product you design will be.

A simple example of what JackThreads.com "says" when users decide to unsusbscribe

Cognitive Laws or Flaws in UX Design?

We like putting laws and principles behind our design choices. We do that because we hope that previous experiments and testing can come up with a recipe for successful design strategies. Often, that is reasonable, but what really matters is how we apply these laws in our work. Does our own experience, as users, validate these principles against the actual reality of everyday interactions?

A very simple example is Hick's Law talking about choice paralysis when users are presented with too many options especially when it comes to items from a long lists. Apparently, it's easier for user to choose from one row of 10 items, rather than two rows of 5 items. This principle is restricted by Miller's observation that short term memory cannot handle more than 7 items at a time (with a -/+ 2 items margin). How can you solve this contradiction, as a designer?

Choosing made easy: CSS Tricks finds a balance between Miller's magical number 7 and Hick's law

Although CSS Tricks does a good job at it, for more than a decade, most websites designed would use lists of attributes, a logic, ordered and cold approach to presenting a variety of options to people. Browsers use a row of tabs, your OS would make you navigate through lists and apps will have huge menus and submenus that will expand over half of your screen.

Only recently, interaction designers started to adapt perception laws to everyday life, and come up with a couple of interesting alternatives to rows and lists. Here are a few examples:

Lists, rows or stacks? Enter Photo Stacks on the iPadwhere you organize items on stacks, just like we would in our own house

People Awareness

Although interaction design should not be limited by its own means of practice, older web technologies inflicted a lot of pain in most of the user interaction patterns we got familiar with. Thanks to the rise of touch interfaces and the evolution of markup languages and web design tools, interaction designers are now able to reconstruct the web in a way that responds better to basic human needs and preferences. Designers have started to build a brand new social, playful and colorful web, reflecting personalities, ideas, visions, moods and emotions.

Web Service's 2.0
Photo by: PipeApple on Flickr

People awareness in web design spreads across multiple levels as well as throughout the process of creating, building, optimizing and converting a web product.

Your website is targeting a specific market and that idea is defined through personas. Your process from wireframe to design is user-centered: what are the true goals users want to reach on your website. You can be people-aware up until this point, have a strong product and a solid base. User experience is a milestone in the creation of every website. If you have user profiles and focus on the user as a designer, but stop there, you're not giving life to the final product. You're building it, but then taking its life away.

It may be difficult to explain to business owners busy talking numbers why your job shouldn't be limited by or finished once you polished up the surface, but if your client understands ROI, they should understand user experience in similar terms.

How much effort would you put in bringing in new users? Is your market deep enough to support the business based on this strategy only? Good user experience extends the life of the product by ensuring a higher return rate of first time users. Here it is: a web product that keeps people coming back, a website that is useful and fun and a great user experience.

Web analytics focus on real people. Check out our interview with Neil Patel about KissMetrics and web analytics.

Lastly, you need to be people-aware when it comes to analytics. You have this beautiful website and returning customers, but your business vision is back to numbers and risk seeing just traffic stats, rather than actual people coming back to do business with you and displaying certain behaviors when interacting with your website. Avoid this trap by choosing the right web analytics tool for you, that would display accurate and relevant information about real people, in real time and over time. Web analytics is ultimately about people, so there you have it - the last possible level where people-awareness is paying off in your web strategy.

Endnote: Earlier this year we talked about concepts from Psychology that UX designers could use to craft better experiences and integrate in their design strategy. We are adding a few more concepts, especially relevant in the context of user interaction. We talked about communication, perception and people-awareness. There's much more to add to the list, and we would like to hear your thoughts on this topic as well. Do you think this article was useful? Please share it with your friends!

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